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Offerings of 'Silent Spring,' venerated material excel

| Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert on Friday night -- led for the third consecutive week by music director Manfred Honeck -- was a remarkable experience that went from strength to strength.

It started with a winning world premiere, continued with a fascinating interpretation of a popular violin concerto by a glamorous soloist and concluded with a great performance of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's greatest symphony.

Steven Stucky was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony to write "Silent Spring" in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's influential book.

The first section, "The Sea Around Us," begins quietly in the depths of orchestral sonority. As figurations first heard in low winds and tuba are picked up by higher pitched winds and strings, the bass line moves in a significant musical idea that begins with slowly rising half steps.

Musical motifs become more angular in the second section, "The Lost Wood," which acquires powerful rhythmic thrust as it rises to a peak. "Rivers of Death," the third section, interrupts with furious energy.

The final section begins with high register strings chirping ecstatically over an ominous undertone. The pace slows as winds and horns play expressive lines that are finally sung slowly by a single instrument (the bass clarinet) and fade to silence over a pedal tone punctuated by wide tone clusters.

Thus Stucky's "Silent Spring" ends with the silence of the birds, which is what led Carson to begin the investigation reported in her book.

Honeck and the orchestra gave an impressive account of Stucky's piece, especially for a first performance. It had sensitivity, color and bold dynamics, although I wish that bass line near the beginning of the first movement had come out more.

Nikolaj Znaider had the audience hanging on his every passionate note in the Violin Concerto by Jan Sibelius. His bowing technique is fabulous, both in luscious tone and rhythmic bite. And his fantasy-filled interpretation sang from the heart.

Honeck was at his best in the concluding Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. It was well paced and well balanced, but above all it was emotionally communicative. There was elegance as well as power, while the first violin section in the finale played with the nuances of an individual's deepest feelings.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $20 to $93. Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

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